According to the Holmes Rahe Stress Inventory, divorce is the second most stressful event that can happen in your life. Of course, if you’re going through a divorce, you don’t need Drs. Holmes or Rahe to tell you how stressed out you feel. The truth is, you’re much more interested in discovering how to deal with stress than you are with figuring out the precise level of stress you’re under.
What’s Your Definition of Stress?
Like it or not, dealing with stress is a normal part of our modern life. Yet, what people define as being stressful can vary widely.
Some people define stress as being stuck in traffic. Others define it as being stuck in the house with your soon-to-be-ex during a months-long coronavirus quarantine.
Others define stress as getting diagnosed with a terminal illness or being so overloaded with work they can barely breathe.
One of the most widely accepted definitions of stress is,
…. a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that ‘demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”
In other words, when you feel like you’re out of control, you feel stressed.
When you’re going through a divorce, you feel like you’re out of control most of the time. It’s not surprising, then, that your stress level is usually off the charts.
Effects of Stress on the Body
When you experience something that you perceive to be stressful, your body reacts in a very specific way.
Your heart rate rises and your breath gets shallow and quick. Your brain sends out a battalion of stress hormones designed to help your body deal with the threat at hand. In short, your body gets ready to fight, run, or freeze.
Here’s the problem.
The fight, flight or freeze response is supposed to be a temporary biological state.
It works wonderfully well when you’re staring down a grizzly bear in the forest. But grizzly bears don’t normally stick around forever. Assuming they haven’t already mauled you, eventually, they get bored and move on. When they do your body can relax.
In our crazy, amped-up modern world, though, all the things that cause you stress don’t just magically walk away like a grizzly bear into the forest. On the contrary, your life stressors these days tend to pitch a tent and camp out inside your brain and your body.
Sometimes, they don’t just pitch a tent. They build a whole building.
When they do, your body gets stuck in a stressful state. You either can’t sleep at all or all you want to do is sleep. Either you eat too much or you eat too little. You get irritable, nervous and you can’t think straight.
Being in this state of chronic stress can create serious health issues.
Heart disease, headaches, obesity, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and a host of autoimmune disorders like thyroid diseases, lupus, and multiple sclerosis are all stress-related.
While stress may not be the only cause of these illnesses, it definitely can make them all worse.
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The Effect of Stress in Divorce
Everyone knows that divorce is stressful. What they don’t think about, however, is the length of time that someone going through a divorce has to live under pressure.
For most people, the stress of divorce starts long before their actual divorce begins.
Living in a bad marriage is stressful. Deciding to divorce is stressful. All that stress piles up BEFORE anyone utters the word, “divorce.”
What’s more, divorce itself is a process, not an event. Divorce isn’t something that you do in a day, or a week, or a month. Often you can’t even get it done in a year.
Going through a divorce takes time. During that time, you experience stress at a level you may have never experienced before … and it just keeps pelting you like ice balls in a hail storm.
Knowing how to deal with constant, long-term stress is essential for getting through your divorce without having a heart attack, or developing some other stress-related illness in the process.
How to Deal with Stress During Divorce
The key to knowing how to deal with stress – especially divorce stress – in a productive way is to start by identifying the exact cause of your stress.
There’s a big difference between being stressed out because your attorney won’t return your phone calls, and being worried about sending your pre-school kids to spend an entire unsupervised week with your spouse who has an undiagnosed drug or alcohol problem. Both situations may be stressful. But the second one takes your stress to a whole new level.
To start to figure out the precise cause of your stress at any given moment, you need to first notice that you’re stressed. While that seems obvious enough, most of us are so caught up in BEING stressed that we don’t even NOTICE that we are stressed.
So, step number one is always to pay attention to what’s going on.
If you find yourself with your fists balled up and your teeth clenched, stop for a moment and notice that you’re feeling stressed. Then while you’re paying attention to what’s going on, ask yourself: Why?
Why am I feeling stressed out?
What triggered me to feel this way?
Once you become aware of what’s setting you off, you’ll have a much better chance of dealing with it.
The Top 5 Causes of Divorce Stress and How to Deal With Them
1. Loss of Control.
Loss of control is a HUGE stressor! When you start going through a divorce, you lose control of so many things, including:
- your spouse;
- your finances;
- the divorce process;
- your kids’ lives; and
- your own life.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to be in control of everything all the time, going through a divorce will probably push your stress level to heights it’s never seen before!
How to Deal With Stress Due to Loss of Control
Step One: Figure out what you can and can’t control.
Even if you’ve lost control of everything else in your life (and divorce is rarely THAT extreme!) you can still control yourself. You can control your attitude. You can control your actions.
Pay attention to what you CAN control. Then figure out what you CAN’T control. (Unfortunately, this category will probably be much bigger.)
For example, you can’t control the divorce process, the court system, or your lawyer. You can’t control how long your divorce takes or how much it costs. (Yes, you can AFFECT all of those things. But you really can’t control them.)
Step Two: Control what you can.
Even when regaining control seems hopeless, know that there are still some things you can control.
Given practice (and a good amount of therapy!) you can learn to control your actions and reactions in your divorce. You can control what you say and what you do.
Of course, controlling yourself and your actions is tough – especially when your spouse is purposely pushing every button you have! That’s okay.
Start small. Take one day at a time. Control one thing at a time. Give yourself credit for every little thing you do control. Celebrate your success.
Step Three: Let go of what you can’t control.
This is by far the hardest of the three steps.
Letting go when you want to hang on is incredibly difficult! It doesn’t help that you know in your head that you can’t control your spouse, or your kids, or whatever else is stressing you out. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
One helpful technique that helps you let go is to ask yourself a few questions:
- Can I control this? If the answer is “yes,” then do whatever you can to exercise control. If the answer is “no,” then go to question 2.
- Can I do anything to affect this? You may not be able to control what the judge does in your divorce, but you can work to present the strongest case possible. Do what you can to affect whatever it is that you’re worried about. Then ask yourself the next question.
- What can I do to minimize the negative effects of what I can’t control? This is risk management. If you’ve done everything you can to affect a situation, and it still goes badly, what COULD you do to get yourself out of trouble? Is there anything you can do now that would make a bad result less traumatic in the future. If so, do that.
- If there is NOTHING you can do now that you haven’t already done, then relax. Take a deep breath. Let life happen and have enough faith in yourself to know that, no matter what happens, you’re going to figure out a way to be okay.
There’s simply nothing else you can do.
2. Uncertainty About the Future.
Being stressed out about what’s going to happen after your divorce is over is natural. Our brains are hard-wired to find what is or could be wrong now or in the future. That way we can (theoretically) protect ourselves from whatever dangerous thing may be coming our way.
Unfortunately, being stressed out about what MIGHT or COULD happen in the future accomplishes nothing … other than raising your blood pressure.
When you’re going through a divorce your worries about an uncertain future are endless.
- “What if I can’t find a job?”
- “What if I don’t have enough money?”
- “How am I going to handle everything alone?”
- “What if everyone hates me because of my divorce?”
- “What if my kids end up dropping out of school and becoming delinquents?”
- “How am I going to be able to AFFORD all this?!!!”
At every turn, in every situation, you keep asking yourself, “What if …,” “What if…”.
The problem with asking “What if…” is that there is no answer. Ever.
You will never know exactly what will happen in the future until it happens.
How to Deal With Stress Due to Uncertainty
Step One: Make a list of what you are worried about.
When you’re worried about every bad thing that could possibly happen to you in the future, your brain is not your friend. It will continue to obsess over all the “What if’s?” that are circling around in your head until you’ve worked yourself up into a state of complete panic.
To calm yourself down, start by writing down everything you’re worried about. Be as concrete as you can be. Then, after you’ve done that, it’s time to do a little research.
Many times, simply having accurate information about something is enough to dispel your fears about it. If you do a little research, you may discover that whatever you’re worried about can’t happen, or that the chances of it happening are .001%. Knowing that will make you feel better.
If it doesn’t, then at least having solid and accurate information will help when you move to step two: brainstorming options.
Step Two: Brainstorm your options for dealing with those situations.
Now that you’ve thought of every single horrible thing you can worry about, it’s time to start making a plan for what you would do IF any of those things happened. (Yes! You can! Be creative.)
If you can’t come up with any options, then get help. Ask a friend. Ask a divorce professional. Do your best to come up with at least two or three things you could do to help make sure that whatever you are worried about won’t happen.
For example, if you are worried that you will have to sell your home after the divorce, talk to a realtor. Find out what your home is worth. Talk to a mortgage broker. Get the information you need to figure out whether you can really keep your house or not. That way, you’ll have a better idea about whether you can afford to keep your house or not.
Step Three: Make a concrete plan for the future.
Once you’ve brainstormed as many solutions to every problem that you possibly can, it’s time to choose the best solution for each problem. Again, WRITE THEM DOWN!
It doesn’t matter whether you actually use your plans. (The truth is, you probably won’t use most of those plans because most of what you’re worried about what really happen!) What matters is that you HAVE plans!
The very act of creating a plan re-focuses your attention on what you CAN do. It will force you to become resourceful and think creatively. Doing all of that, and focusing on solutions instead of problems, will automatically start to bring your stress levels down.
3. Financial Insecurity.
Divorce usually causes tremendous financial changes in your life. Facing those changes can easily trigger your deepest, darkest fears.
- What will you do if you don’t have enough money to pay the bills?
- How will you deal with your debts?
- Where will you live?
- What if you can’t refinance your mortgage, or sell your house?
- How will you and your kids survive?
Fears about money – specifically not having enough money – trigger your survival instincts in a primal way.
The biggest problem with money worries in divorce is that, many of your worst fears may actually come true. You may have to downsize your lifestyle and pinch pennies for a while after your divorce.
At the same time, even though financial worries can be very serious and very real, they are rarely as dire as they seem to be when they’re spinning around in your head at two o’clock in the morning.
The key to dealing with financial worries is to take control of your financial future as soon as you possibly can.
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How to Deal With Stress Due to Financial Insecurity
Step One: Make a budget.
See how much money you are bringing in and paying out right now. Then make a post-divorce budget so that you can see how much money you will be bringing in and paying out after you are divorced.
If there is a gap between money in and money out, you will see it. Then you can start to deal with it.
Step Two: Get help.
Talk to a financial planner or an accountant. Talk to your lawyer. If you need to, go to a credit counselor. Figure out what your options are.
Are you going to need to get a better job? Are you going to need to cut expenses? Knowing what the problem is may not help you to solve it, but you can’t even begin to solve the problem until you know what it is.
Step Three: Play the long game.
Your divorce may set you back financially for quite a while. But, if you scale back your lifestyle and adjust your spending now, you will probably be able to set yourself up for a much more secure financial future.
Finally, resist the temptation to wallow in self-pity over having to do more with less money. Sure, it’s discouraging to have to go backward financially. At the same time, by consistently making the right financial moves from now on, you may be able to move forward much more quickly than you imagine.
4. Concerns About Your Kids.
Nothing is more agonizing than watching your children’s lives change because of your divorce. It’s even worse when your soon-to-be-ex starts parenting in a way that makes your blood boil.
Maybe your soon-to-be-ex has turned into the “Disney Dad” and is lavishing your kids with expensive gifts that you can’t afford. Even though you know he is trying to buy your kids’ love, you can’t help but worry that it will work and you’ll become the parent the kids hate.
Of maybe your soon-to-be-ex is badmouthing you to your kids. Maybe she told your teenagers about your affair and now they don’t want to see you anymore. Now you’re afraid that your relationships with your kids will never be the same. You’re worried that they may never want to see you again.
All of these issues, and a thousand more, can be very real consequences of your divorce. Unfortunately, stressing out over them won’t change them.
How to Deal With Stress Due to Concerns About Your Kids
Step One: Don’t fight with your spouse!
Conflict, more than anything else, hurts children. Do your best not to argue with your spouse about the children, or in front of the children. (I know, that’s not always possible. Try anyway.)
If there is any way that you can bite your tongue and maintain a civil relationship with your soon-to-be-ex for the sake of your kids: do it!
Step Two: Pay extra attention to your kids right now.
Spend as much extra time with your kids as possible. Ask them their opinion and listen to what they have to say. Depending on their age, they may or may not be able or willing to voice their opinion to you.
You also want to pay attention to what they do. Sometimes kids will say one thing but do another. If you see that happening to your kids, know that what they DO is often a better clue about what’s going on with them than what they SAY.
Step Three: Get help.
Talk to your children’s teachers and school counselors. Let them know what is going on and have them alert you to any changes in your children’s behavior.
If your child starts acting out, don’t come down too hard on them. Talk to them. Listen to them. If their behavior gets really bad, or they seem to be anxious or depressed, get them a therapist. Getting a little professional help to get your kids through this tough time can go a long way in helping make their lives a little less miserable right now.
5. Grief and Loss.
Divorce is a loss – a BIG loss. It doesn’t matter whether you were the one who wanted to get a divorce, or you were blind-sided when your spouse hit you with the news.
Ending a marriage hurts like crazy. It is a loss. You have to let yourself grieve.
How to Deal With Stress Due to Grief and Loss
Step One: Let Yourself Grieve
When we’re mired in the pain of a relationship that’s ending, all we want is relief. We want to spend a day without crying. We want to feel good again.
It’s tempting to want to push the pain aside without ever really dealing with it.
Some people self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, or food. Others dive further into their work, and become “too busy” to feel, too busy to grieve.
Unfortunately, until you allow yourself to feel your feelings, you can never work through them. Not giving yourself time to grieve doesn’t resolve your pain. It just buries it.
Step Two: Take care of yourself.
Taking care of your physical body won’t magically make your grief go away. But it will make you feel better. And just feeling better physically can help improve your mood and reduce your stress.
The basics of self-care aren’t hard to figure out. Eat right. Exercise. Drink plenty of water. Try to get enough sleep.
Taking care of yourself also means taking care of your emotions, too. Start doing things that you enjoy. Go dancing. Play basketball. Ride a motorcycle. Read a book. Learn meditation.
Do what you need to do so that you can deal with your grief and move on.
Step Three: Get help.
This is not the time to be a hero. You don’t need to go through your divorce alone, nor should you.
Whatever you do, don’t try to do everything yourself.
8 More Tips for How to Deal With Stress During Divorce
In addition to taking the steps listed above, there are also a number of other techniques you can use to reduce your stress in general. Here are some of the best stress relievers you can try.
The way you breathe has a dramatic effect on your physiology. You can use your breathe to calm you down, or psych you up. To reduce stress, try “box breathing.” Breathe in for 5 counts. Hold for 5 counts. Breathe out for 5 counts. Repeat. Feel yourself relax.
Exercise isn’t just important for your physical health. It’s also important for your emotional and mental health too. Exercise reduces fatigue, improves cognitive function, and helps you sleep better. All of those lead to less stress, and an overall sense of well-being.
3. Eat Right.
Eating to reduce stress includes more than simply eating a healthy diet (although that’s a part of it, too!). Eating these foods is thought to reduce your stress level:
- Green Tea
- Tuna Fish
4. Drink Plenty of Water.
According to research, dehydration increases the amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) in your body. Staying properly will help keep your body in balance and reduce the amount of stress you feel.
5. Use essential oils.
Studies have shown that inhaling certain scents can lower your perceived stress levels and improve the quality of your sleep. Lavender, Ylang-ylang, bergamot, chamomile, vetiver and rose essential oils can all help relieve stress.
Studies have proven that meditation can help reduce stress and anxiety. There are many different types of meditation. Practicing any of them will give you an increased sense of calm, peace and balance.
Getting a good night’s sleep is hard when you’re all stressed out. Ironically, sleeping actually reduces your stress hormones. It brings oxygen and blood to your tissues and helps your whole body relax. If you’re too stressed out to sleep, you may be able to turn that around by practicing good sleep habits. (You can also check out these sleep tips from health professionals.)
8. Walk in Nature.
Human beings evolved outside. Being in nature can help reduce stress, and relieve anxiety. It can make you feel calm and balanced. What’s more, brain research has shown that a walk in the park literally changes our brains in a way that affects our mental health.
This post was originally published on October 18, 2018, and updated on April 21, 2020.
Another thing that can really stress you out during divorce is not knowing what you’re doing.
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